The Korean pop band BTS is almost certainly the biggest band in the world right now, and on April 12 it released its most anticipated album, Map of the Soul: Persona. It is the music of triumph.
The seven-member group sold more than three million copies of its eighth album before it was even released, and the video for the album’s first single, “Boy With Luv,” shattered the record for most YouTube streams in the 24 hours after release with 74.6 million listens (Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” previously held the record).
For newcomers to BTS, Map of the Soul: Persona, is a good introduction to the band. And it’s a joyful listen. BTS’s music is maximalist pop. Every song has multiple catchy hooks, and usually includes singing, rapping, and mesmerizing coordinated dance moves.
The band, which includes members Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook, uses every trick in the pop music composition book to wear down the skeptical listener’s resistance to its charm. The first song of the album, Intro/Persona, begins with an exhilarating Kanye West-style sped up R&B vocal sample—sometimes referred to as “chipmunk soul.” The song then introduces guitar power chords that would be at home in an AC/DC song, along with a modern hip-hop beat. Combined with hungry rapping by band member RM, it’s irresistible. (There are also fun little touches, like a sample from the video game Mario.)
As Justin Bieber would say, Map of the Soul: Persona is “expensive sounding” music. Every note and beat has been labored over by a huge team of songwriters and producers—at least seven songwriters are credited on most songs. BTS is big business, and getting the balance on a harmony just right can make all the difference between a song being a huge hit or just album filler.
BTS, also known as the Bangtan Boys, was formed in 2013 by the Big Hit Entertainment record executive Bang Si Hyuk. Hyuk’s vision for the group was that the members would not be the machine-like pop stars that Korean pop typically produced—that he would allow them to be vulnerable, and talk about their fears and anxieties about being young people and pop stars. The members would also write their own lyrics, Hyuk thought would help them better connect to fans.
He was right. BTS’s connection with fans, who call themselves the ARMY, runs unusually deep. The group broke through internationally in 2017, with the album Love Yourself: Her, which contained the band’s first single to make the Billboard Hot 100, the influential US music chart used to rank the country’s most popular songs. Meanwhile, with BTS’s success, Big Hit Entertainment grew to an operating profit of over $50 million last year.
The hidden star of the new album is producer Pdogg. The Korean producer has worked with BTS since before the band’s last album, and outside of the group, no person may be more responsible for the sound of its music. Pdogg is credited as the producer and a lead songwriter of the album’s two best songs: “HOME” and “Boy with Luv.” “HOME” is a classic Korean pop song, combining sophisticated 1990’s style American R&B melodies with modern pop production and lyrics in Korean, English and even a little Spanish. “Boy with Luv” owes less to Korean pop history, and more to electronic dance music (EDM). The chorus is as catchy as a Taylor Swift or Rihanna song, and it seems destined to be the band’s first top ten hit in the US.
Although Persona is fun album, it’s not particularly innovative. This is pop music that wants to satisfy its audience’s expectations, not to challenge them. There is nothing wrong with that, but if you are a listener bored with today’s pop music, this won’t be the cure.
Still, it’s worth a listen just to understand where popular music is at the moment. BTS is a phenomenon unlike anything else in pop culture, and from the rapturous response to this album, it doesn’t look like the band is going anywhere any time soon.
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